When I saw Donnie he was sitting at the end of the bench with a Brewers jacket on his hands were in his pockets, he was the pitcher that was closest to home plate. The bullpen was along the left field wall in foul territory. There was a grassy area right behind the players where spectators could sit. I walked down to the area to say hi to him. I didn’t want to interrupt him during the game. As I stood in the grassy area for a couple minutes, it started to rain a little bit. It was a nice night but the rain was going to make things difficult. A couple of little league players ran up to the fence and asked Donnie for a ball. He cocked his head to the right and told them he couldn’t give them a ball unless it was a foul ball. He didn’t look at the kids when he spoke to them as he kept his eye on the game and the batter. The kids turned around and ran off. I could tell he has answered that question many times, since June, when he was assigned to Helena after he was drafted in the 21st round by the Milwaukee Brewers.
I had met Donnie the previous summer when he was pitching for the Lakeshore Chinooks. I had my nephew, Eric, along with another kid from Ashland, Johnny Sechon, staying with me. They were playing on a select baseball team in Milwaukee. They were bored and I thought it would be fun to see the Chinooks. When we got to the game, Johnny told me that his brother, George, knows one of the players. That player happened to be Donnie. I knew who Donnie was; Eric’s dad had been following him since he graduated from Northwestern High School in Maple, Wisconsin, which is 40 miles west of Ashland. Jerry, my brother-in-law, would mention how he was doing at Notre Dame from time to time. At the Chinooks game we were standing along the fence line when he walked by. Donnie wasn’t hard to miss as he stands 6′ 7″ tall. I called him over, Johnny introduced himself and mentioned George. He acknowledged that he knew George, thanked us for coming to the game, shook all of our hands and went on his way. My first impression of him was very positive. My exact thought – “Wow, what a respectful kid…”
For some reason I felt goofy standing in the rain wanting to give Donnie my card. However, I wanted to interview him. He was from Northern Wisconsin, he was living my dream. Lots of people dream; but, since he was from my home territory, I felt more connected to him. I was in Helena, Montana, two weeks prior and spoke to him for a moment after the game while there. He didn’t recall the Chinooks game. I asked him about his fastball that he had struggled with his junior and senior year in college, his velocity was off. He said, “It is back to where it was my sophomore year, in the low 90’s.” He took a “selfie” with me and went into the locker room. So, as I was standing there in the rain I was nervous. I have met other players at all different levels, why at this game in Idaho Falls was I feeling this way? After the kids ran off, I walked over to him at the end of the bench and interrupted him intently watching the game. He turned, looked at me and smiled with a slight recognition, acknowledged the week before and agreed to meet me for breakfast the next morning.
I walked away shaking my head. Why some people affect me, and others don’t, I will ever know. I am a grown man, but I think it was because I wanted to hear what it was like to be a baseball player. I wanted to know what it was like to go to Notre Dame. And if, like my nephew said, “The Ashland Oredockers 10 run ruled him!” I didn’t want him to say “no” because he had answers to questions that I have had for a long time. He said he would text me when he got up. I didn’t get his number, but I trusted him as he seemed so sincere and respectful.
When I woke the next morning I quickly checked my phone. I slept in until 10 a.m. and was worried that he had sent a text. I had a text from my daughter and as I was responding to her, Donnie’s text message came through. He apologized for it being so late. The team was out late after the game eating at Denny’s (it was only place open when they got done). Helena lost in extra innings to Idaho Falls, 8-7. I was right down the road from the hotel they were staying at. I picked him up and we went to a local restaurant to talk. I peppered him with questions. He told me about Notre Dame and how you don’t understand the tradition until you step on the campus and see the “Golden Dome”. He marveled at how the alumni supports their teams. He laughed when I asked if the football team overshadowed the baseball team. He said, “It is hard to describe the feeling” he has about his school. Donnie is ready for his next chapter, he knows the great opportunity he has but he has a little pang of regret that his college career is over. He loved it and does wish he was going back for another year.
He smiles thinking about draft day, he told me he didn’t think he was going to get drafted, seemingly with little interest. Or, so he thought. When the Brewers called and told him they were going to be taking him with their 21st pick he was thrilled. He knows he has a lot to learn. He had never been to Montana before and loves how beautiful it is. Besides that, he grew up following the Brewers. He knows he is a far way from the bright lights of the “big time”, but he is going to give it his best effort. Donnie does have a finance degree to fall back on. He is very intelligent and with a score of 32 on his ACT prompted Notre Dame to take a look. He was not heavily recruited out of High School. Along with baseball, he played basketball and football all four years at Northwestern. I ask about being 10 run ruled by Ashland. He doesn’t remember, but states, “It has happened” and laughs. He quickly followed with, “Ashland has always had a good baseball program”.
I really like Donnie. He is humble, respectful, intelligent, with determination. He fully understands what he needs to do and keeps it all in perspective. He realizes the time will be considerable, along with much practice and, most of all, patience. He will work on his game in the off season in California. His girlfriend lives there whom he met at Notre Dame. They have talked about this dream and she fully supports him. He is looking forward to spring training next year and wants more innings now; but understands the team needs to look at all their prospects. Winning feels different in the minors compared to the college level. Even though, the passion is there. “You keep it more contained”, he says. “And, you root on your teammates in a different way but the goal is to get to the next level whatever level that is.”
I will pay attention to Donnie and his career. He is living the life I dreamed of. Currently, it isn’t bright lights or big cities and it may never be; but, just having the chance is what makes it exciting.
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